Tag Archives: Kalpana Narayanan

An Interview with Kalpana Narayanan

25 Sep
Kalpana Narayanan's story, "Aviator on the Prowl," won Boston Review's Aura Estrada Short Story Prize.

Kalpana Narayanan’s story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” won Boston Review’s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize.

Kalpana Narayanan was born in New Delhi and raised in Atlanta, and she now lives in Brooklyn. She has received writing fellowships from Yaddo, The Hambidge Center, and The New York Foundation for the Arts, and, in 2011, received Boston Review’s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize. The judge, novelist Francisco Goldman, called the story “a pretty dazzling mix of charm, humor, strong emotion, jump-off-the-page liveliness.” Narayanan teaches writing at Fordham University.

To read Narayanan’s story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” at Boston Review and an exercise on making creating character foils, click here.

Michael Noll

I love how so much of the dialogue shows the characters talking to themselves or talking to others and getting no response. When there is some extended back-and-forth, it gets summarized, as with the dialogue with the mom in the first paragraph. One effect of this is that it reinforces just how alone these characters are. Was the dialogue was always written this way or did it start out longer and then get pared back in revision?

Kalpana Narayanan

That’s a lovely read of the dialogue in the story. Thank you. The dialogue in the first draft of the story is the same as it was in the final draft—short.  Someone pointed out to me that the narrator only speaks once, which was so surprising to me, because in my head, she has this interior world that is constantly in dialogue with what she’s seeing, with the people around her.  But it’s true, we only hear her speak once at the end.  I think that was something I was interested in—a narrator who has a rich interior life, but the outside world can’t necessarily see that. I was interested in these characters who are in this house that feels at times as if it’s about to collapse in on them.  Their one way out is to communicate—but they can’t. There’s something really human about that problem to me—about not being able to communicate with the people who are closest to you.

It was also the first time I’d written in first-person, which I think unlocked something in me as I wrote it—I realized that I could just have her be in her head, imagining what she would say.  She’s this character who is enveloped by grief, and has all this emotion brimming in her, but she can’t vocalize it—she absorbs more and more, until she can’t one day—and I wanted for the reader to be in her head as this is happening, to be with her in this moment when she is finally able to connect, and act, and speak.

Michael Noll

Was the character of the narrator’s boss always such a significant part of the story? I ask because the story begin with the narrator struggling with her brother’s death, but very quickly the conflict with her boss becomes at least as pressing—and maybe more pressing—than this original conflict. The boss is such a great character—and a great opportunity for the story to direct the narrator’s grief into an unexpected direction.

Kalpana Narayanan

Thank you.  I think I started out wanting to bring the narrator out of her house.  I wanted her to try to move forward.  That couldn’t happen in her house, because her family is so consumed by the death of their son, and stuck in this holding pattern in a way.  So she begins to work at a restaurant.

The second the boss entered onto the page, he stuck. And I was interested in that—in the boss being someone who was unlikable, and abrasive, and in that way, someone who would push the narrator, and be really hard on her, because he has this lack of boundaries, and lack of reverence, for what has happened to the narrator’s family. And it would be that push that would allow the narrator to move forward. I don’t think I had any idea how the story would end, but by the time I got there, it seemed to make emotional sense. Her boss is this outsider who is in no way affected by this death that has happened.  And he’s so cruel, which makes the reader empathize with the narrator—but he’s also more complex than that, he’s also able to unlock this part of the narrator that no one else can—and in that way, push her. And that’s what I really wanted—for the narrator to be caught off guard, and for her to surprise herself, and to be suddenly able to move slightly forward.

Michael Noll

Kalpana Narayanan discussed death and the novel Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, in this essay at The Millions.

Kalpana Narayanan discussed death and the novel Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, in this essay at The Millions.

You recently published an essay about the novel Skippy Dies—“A Physics of the Heart: On Grief, M-Theory, and Skippy Dies—and wrote that the “descriptions of young love, and of grief, are so raw and vivid that they make for an alternate, enveloping universe, one created by the friction of words brushing up against each other in new ways.” I’m curious if you had something like this in mind with “Aviator on the Prowl.” Do the death of the narrator’s brother and her sexuality belong to different universes that have been momentarily brought together?

Kalpana Narayanan

Part of why Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies was and is so moving to me, is the language of his book.  It’s so energetic, and heated, and it mirrors the world and imaginations of these kids who are dealing with heartbreak, and loss, and other incredibly difficult things.  His language is so raw, and his descriptions are so fresh, that you feel like you’re in a different world, as you read—you have these sentences that explode like fireworks across the page. I think that’s part of what I was getting at in that description—this idea that you can create a universe through language, which I think is what any writer is trying to do.  I think when you’re writing about really difficult human experiences, death being the most difficult, you have to find a language that can do that work, a language that is raw and in that way perhaps mirrors the experience of your characters. I wrote Aviator years before I read Skippy Dies, but perhaps it’s part of why I was drawn to Murray’s book. In our real lives, our worlds are constantly overlapping—our work lives, our personal lives—they’re overlapping in messy ways—in fiction you can use language to make these worlds collide, and explore the friction that happens when they do.

Michael Noll

The story is full of cultural mash-ups. In one section alone, Japan is confused with Okinawa, a fat Korean man’s favorite word is “copacetic,” and the character mops up Sriracha stains by skating on sponges like Pippi Longstocking while her boss watches while drinking an Akitabare. On one hand, these juxtapositions seem like the natural result of the many cultures present in a place like this. But, on the other hand, they also seem to reinforce, in a way, the narrator’s confusion. Was this mashup intentional or just one of those happy accidents that sometimes occur in fiction?

Kalpana Narayanan

That’s an interesting question.  It wasn’t intentional, but I’m happy if it comes through as something that’s natural. I do think that those kinds of juxtapositions that you’re speaking to are just a really natural part of our lives. When you’re living in one place, but were raised in another, and born in yet another, as so many of us are, the connections you make when you are viewing the world are going to be unique, and beautiful, and surprising, and complex. I’ve always been interested in writing about what happens when different worlds, cultures collide. Ultimately that collision is an interior collision, or a collision between two people. The person who is standing in one place, but who has lived all of these other lives, is going to see the world through all of these lenses, and tell stories that are really layered, and in that way hopefully tell a story that feels real, and moving.

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create a Character Foil

23 Sep
Kalpana Narayanan won Boston Review's Aura Estrada Short Story Prize with her story, "Aviator on the Prowl."

Kalpana Narayanan won Boston Review‘s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize with her story, “Aviator on the Prowl.”

In high school literature classes, students are often taught about character foils—a yin-and-yang concept in which characters tend to be polar opposites of each other, as in the nursery rhyme, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean.” As a story device, an opposites-attract approach often works. But it isn’t the only way to develop character conflicts.

In her story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” Kalpana Narayanan creates two characters who are remarkably alike rather than different. The result is a story that won Boston Review‘s 2011 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest. The judge, Francisco Goldman, wrote that the story “makes you laugh a lot, makes you feel great affection, and breaks your heart. I have to admit, I finished it with tears in my eyes.” You can read “Aviator on the Prowl” here.

How the Story Works

There are many ways to establish a character (physical traits, social position, job), but one of the most memorable to the reader is through the character’s attitude toward the world around her. In this first paragraph of “Aviator on the Prowl,” notice how prominent the narrator’s voice is. It could have been made transparent, like a clear window for us to see the events of her past, but, instead, the voice colors our view:

That summer I broke it up and down and got a job because I was tired of thinking. Each night I came home I peeled off my shirt and pants that smelled of the juice of a thousand pigs, and I stood outside my room. My brother Aalap had hanged there the year before, the starched, yellow fold of his karate-class belt rounding his neck like a scarf. I’d been at college, and my mother had made it clear it was the belt and not her own strangle that had writhed small Aalap purple. You could still see the hole where the nail had been. It was just above my bedroom door and everyone had remembered everything but no one had remembered it.

This is a tough, jaded narrator. Her brother has committed suicide, and she’s developed a kind of emotional scab over her still-raw feelings about his death. This attitude becomes clear as she’s put into an interaction with her mother:

My mother said it wasn’t nice how I stripped outside my room like that, that my father might see my triangle bra and shriveled-up breasts and then what. (Buchu, put your breasts back in your buttons!) I said maybe you shouldn’t stick your sad face in my business like that or maybe I just said it in my head.

This clear attitude makes it easier to create a foil for the narrator; the usual way would produce a character who has an opposite attitude toward life, a sort of bleeding heart. But Narayanan does the complete opposite and creates a character who shares the narrator’s combative attitude—and shares it in an exaggerated way. The character is her boss at the restaurant where she works. The similarity of their attitudes becomes clear as soon as he’s introduced:

I told an Asian girl that came in the restaurant our beer was from Japan. My boss screamed I was a humiliation, that it was from Okinawa and if I didn’t get it straight he’d really do something bad. I told the girl it was from Okinawa and gave her the bottle for free. She mouthed an apology when my boss wasn’t looking, but I didn’t care.

The story wastes no time before the boss’s attitude is applied to the central event of the narrator’s life: her brother’s suicide. In this scene, the narrator has come into work even though it’s her off day. She likes working in the kitchen, and so she helps the sous-chef cut some garlic. But, she does it badly, and her boss notices and digs the cut ends out of the trash:

His hand opened to show the end of the bulb I’d just tossed. His fingers rolled the end like mucus then threw it at my face. I twitched.

I don’t fucking care who’s dead and who’s not, he continued, if you waste my money like this again you’re out.

In a way, the story has taken the narrator’s tough attitude toward her brother’s death and, through the character of her boss, exaggerated it into a grotesque version of itself. It becomes a kind of contest between the character’s: how desensitized can they become? As you read the rest of the story, you’ll see how Narayanan steers this contest in a surprising direction and how the final scene offers a release from this contest of wills.

By creating this particular character foil—two characters who are similar rather than opposites—Narayanan creates a framework in which the story’s emotional tension (how does she grieve her brother’s death) can play out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character foil using “Aviator on the Prowl” by Kalpana Narayanan as a model:

  1. Create a character and a problem that will not go away quickly. The character can be anyone, but the problem should be persistent, as opposed to one that can be solved with a decision (to leave or stay, to take this job or that one). A problem like this tends to be in the background of everything else in the character’s life. So, think about big issues: love, death, or existential dilemmas (what kind of person am I?).
  2. Clearly define the character’s attitude toward that problem. If you’ve ever listened to people talk about themselves in the midst of a significant difficulty (death of a loved one, career change, big move, or some other dramatic life transition), you’ve likely noticed that the stories they tell often change, depending on how they’re feeling about the situation. In other words, we tell ourselves stories that support our basic view of the world and ourselves. So, think about the character’s attitude as a thing he or she has created. How has the character chosen to approach the problem that won’t go away?
  3. Create a second character, one whom the first character cannot avoid. Our lives are full of such people: bosses, coworkers, spouses, children, parents, neighbors, and friends. Particular situations also bring unavoidable people into our lives. If the toilet is backed up, you’re stuck with a plumber. If a storm has blown a tree over onto your house, you’re stuck with a contractor and team of workers. Hospitals have doctors and nurses. Schools have teachers and administrators. In short, think about your character’s situation and choose a character who is an inevitable part of it.
  4. Give this new character the same attitude as the first character. You don’t need to know why the character has this attitude, only that it exists. So, if your first character is tough, make this new character tougher. If your first character is highly rational, make the new character even more logical. Once you know the attitude, you can find ways for it to be expressed. Be practical. If the new character is a nurse who copes with all difficulty with laughter, there will be plenty of difficulties in a nurse’s routine to prompt that laughter.
  5. Find opportunities for these attitudes to collide. You have already created characters who cannot avoid each other. Now, create scenes that force them onto different sides of a problem. Both characters will address the problem in the same way, and that similar approach may produce conflict.

Good luck!

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